Articles April 1, 2023


Sharon Salzberg

Excerpt from Real Life: The Journey From Isolation to Openness and Freedom (2023)

One time when my colleague Joseph Goldstein and I were visiting a friend in Houston, we all went out to a restaurant to order takeout. As we were waiting for the food to be prepared, Joseph struck up a conversation with the young man working behind the counter. After a few minutes, he told Joseph that he’d never left Houston and went on to describe, somewhat passionately, how his dream was to one day go to Wyoming. When Joseph asked him what he thought he would find there, he responded, “Open, expansive space, a feeling of being unconfined, with peacefulness and freedom and room to move.”

Joseph responded, “There’s an inner Wyoming, too, you know.”

At that point, the young man fixed a stare at Joseph and said, “That’s freaky,” as he sidled away.

But there is an inner Wyoming, a potential for openness, spaciousness, clarity, and freedom that exists within each of us. We just need confidence in it, to make the journey to that place, to discover it, nurture it, and hold the memory that it’s there, waiting for us to visit anytime.

In moving from contraction to spaciousness, it’s as if we’re sitting in a narrow, low-ceilinged, dark room—so accustomed to it that we don’t even realize we’re confined—and then the door swings open, revealing light, room to move, and possibilities that suddenly await. We don’t know just what is out there, but it’s certainly more vast and spacious than that tiny room.

My favorite way of imagining that expansive state—as someone with asthma—is “being able to breathe again.” More than just pleasure, different from indulgence, it is mostly a sensation of huge relief. It is peace.

Theologian Howard Thurman recommended that we “look at the world with quiet eyes.” It’s an intriguing phrase. It seems like with the way we so often look at the world, we resemble cartoon characters whose eyes are popping out on springs: “I see something I want! Give it to me!” Our heads rapidly turn to the object of our desire in a fixed gaze, so as not to lose sight of it. Our bodies lean forward in anticipation. Our arms extend, reaching out to acquire it. Our fingers flex, ready to grab on to what we want, to try to keep it from changing, from eluding our grasp. Our shoulders strain to hold on even tighter.

That’s grasping, contraction.

It happens in a moment, or an hour, or a day, a month, a lifetime—and it brings a lot of pain.

So, look at the world with quiet eyes whenever you can, and let go of grasping. The world will come to fill you without your straining for it. In that relaxation, you will find peace. Peace isn’t a fabricated state, repressing all woes and challenges. It is tuning into our fundamental nature.

Willa Maile Qimeng Cuthrell-Tuttleman, when she was seven years old and a student at Friends Academy in Manhattan, wrote a poem that beautifully expresses what I understand as peace.

Peace Is Friendship
Peace looks like nature
Peace smells like fresh air
Peace sounds like wind blowing through the trees Peace tastes like bubble gum
Peace feels like a soft pillow

I have a friend who describes himself as pretty obsessive when nursing a grudge, another contracted state. He can go over and over and over the words of the misunderstanding, or his resentment at not being included, or someone’s reckless behavior. Over and over and over. After one such interlude, he reflected on the obsessive quality, declaring:

“I let him live rent-free in my brain for too long.”

Now imagine yourself going home to that blessedly quiet apartment of your mind. What a relief. You can play music. You can cuddle with your dog. You can reach out to a struggling friend. You can cook a meal, or write a poem, or maybe finally get some sleep.

Expansiveness doesn’t lead us to a vacuous place—cavernous, muted, disconnected. Expansiveness isn’t being spaced out, floating above it all. In the sense that I’m using the word, expansiveness is energized, confident, creative, brimming with love. The subtle balances in life—of rest and action, of passion and letting go, of the power of intention and of patience—all can take place in this expansive space.

Expansiveness helps broaden our perspective, so we can think more flexibly and with a more open mind. We become better able to focus on the big picture and not feel so discouraged by the constant array of ups and downs we experience every day. When faced with adversity, we can generate more solutions. Expansiveness invites experimentation and imagination. We’re more willing to pour ourselves fully into life’s pursuits. It is the freedom of letting down the burden we have been carrying. It leaves room for our fundamentally loving hearts to uncoil, and lead us onward.


Reflecting on the contrast between contraction and expansion, a friend of mine, Linda Stone, whom we will learn more about in chapter 6, related it to the difference between knowledge and feeling. She said:

I’ve put so much focus on accumulating knowledge in my life . . . and, sometimes, when it comes through playful curiosity, it can be expansive. But so much more often, it’s been reductionist, mentally centered, and it can be contracting, and actually block feeling. Holding on to bits of knowledge sometimes seems like the enemy of possibility. Direct experience/feeling seems more expansive. I’ve also been thinking about how the habit of accomplishing and accumulating relates to self-worth. In part because of the COVID lockdown, I stepped back into more of a “retired” state than I have ever been in: more being, less doing. That’s been accompanied by the need to reformulate the externally based calculations of worth: credentials, goals, affiliations. The mind can be a badgering, contracting bully. And no amount of “knowledge,”as I’ve tried to amass it,ever seems to really shift this. Moment-to-moment presence— which usually offers wonder, awe, appreciation—feels like an expansive antidote.

When the astronaut Mae Jemison talks about literal “space,” I hear a beautiful evocation of expansiveness: “Once I got into space, I was feeling very comfortable in the universe. I felt like I had the right to be anywhere in this universe, that I belonged here as much as any speck of stardust, any comet, any planet.”


Many years ago, I attended a stress-reduction program led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, longtime meditation teacher and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. In one exercise, he stepped up to the blackboard, and in the center, he drew a square made up of nine dots, arranged in three parallel lines with three dots in each line. He then challenged everyone in the class to take the piece of chalk and see if we could connect all the dots using only four straight lines, without removing the chalk from the blackboard, and without retracing a line. One by one, all thirty of us went up to the blackboard. We tried beginning from the left, from the right, from the top, from the bottom, and returned to our seats frustrated, unable to do what he’d asked. The room was vibrating with stress.

Then Jon picked up the chalk and, with great sweeping strokes that extended well beyond the perimeter of the small square, did exactly what he had challenged us to do. Every one of us had presumed that to succeed we had to stay within the circumscribed area formed by the nine dots. Jon had never said that we were limited to that little space, but all of us had concluded that was the only area we could move within, the only place to find options. Not one of us could see beyond our limited sense of how much room we had to work in.

How Much Room Do We Have?

When the Buddha taught 2,600 years ago, the social structure in India was built on a rigid philosophical system. According to their prevailing view of the world, everything and every being belonged to a predetermined category or class, and each of these had its own essential nature and its corresponding duty in life or role to play. For example, it is the nature of fire to be hot and to warm and burn things, of rocks to be hard and to support, of grass to grow and provide sustenance to animals, of cows to eat grass and produce milk. The responsibility of every being was to grow into its own nature and to conform to an ideal disposition specific to them. These natures and duties were considered immutable truths. That’s one meaning of the word dharma: that predetermined, preordained nature.

Socially, this concept was translated into the rigidities of the caste system. People were born destined to fulfill a certain nature. It was the duty of certain classes or castes of people to rule, for Brahmans to mediate with divine forces, and for certain other people to be engaged in producing food and material goods. Within this worldview, actions conceived of as moral and appropriate for one caste or gender were considered completely immoral for another. It was proper and beneficial for the Brahman male to read and study the scriptures, while this was absolutely forbidden and considered abhorrent for someone in the “untouchable” caste, an outcast.

Into this constricting social context, the Buddha introduced his revolutionary teachings. What he taught in terms of ethics was radical then, and it is radical now. He asserted that what determines whether an action is moral or immoral is the volition of the person performing it. The moral quality of an action is held within the intention that gives rise to the action. “Not by birth is one a Brahman, or an outcast,” the Buddha said, “but by deeds.” This teaching, in effect, declared the entire social structure of India, considered sacrosanct by many, to be of no spiritual significance at all.

The Buddha was declaring that the only status that truly matters is the status of personal goodness, and personal goodness is attained through personal effort, not by birth. It did not matter if you were a man or a woman, wealthy or poor, a Brahman or an outcast—an action based on greed would have a certain kind of result, and an action based on love would have a certain kind of result. “A true Brahman is one who is gentle, who is wise and caring,” he said, thus completely negating the importance of caste, skin color, class, and gender in any consideration of morality.

It is fascinating and poignant to see how much each of these elements can be a factor in assessing our own or someone else’s worth today, all these years later and throughout the world. In this one teaching, the Buddha burst the bubble of social class, of deflecting responsibility, of mindless deference to religious authority, and of defining potential according to external criteria. In this one teaching, he returned the potential for freedom back to each one of us.

We Have a Lot of Room

That’s another meaning of the word dharma: actualizing that potential for freedom we all have, shedding the stories others have told about us to discover who we genuinely are, understanding what we care about most deeply, what makes for a better life. Dharma is not something we are fated to, or stoic about, but the very set of practices that can lift us out of our conditioning, out of an assumed set of limits and away from what is often a pervasive resignation. We can see for ourselves the elements of life that sustain us, bring us closer and closer to the truth of how things are. Rather than the fixed assignment we are given at birth, dharma reflects a breathtaking capacity of any one of us to take a journey away from constriction and resignation to a vital, creative, free life. None of this is determined in the external conditions of who we are; it is all held in the universal potential of who we might become.

To breathe life into dharma in this sense is the journey of liberation we make. Step by step, we move toward freedom and we manifest freedom all at the same time.

There Are Many Models of Journeying to Live a Full and Free Life, a Real Life...

Some are faith-based; others are completely secular. They all provide a vision of a life that is not just lived mechanically, driven by habit—unfulfilled or disconnected. They all say, in effect, that we don’t have to be so perpetually lonely, feel so boxed in, so circumscribed. In one way or another, these depictions of a journey to freedom evoke an ability to look at one’s circumstances and not be bound by them, to begin to imagine a life other than the one dictated to us by the world. I’ve often said that I think we live in a time of commonly blunted aspiration, where we don’t dare dream of much, but here greater aspiration awakens. We don’t just receive the story of our lives, we discover a new sense of agency in the writing or rewriting of it—a telling that reflects both the universality of that story and its own unique distinctiveness. Psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “It would seem that every human being comes at birth into society not as a lump of clay to be molded by society, but rather as a structure which society may warp or suppress or build upon. We’re here to make a rose into a good rose, not turn a rose into a lily.”

So how do we live more fully as ourselves, with growing purpose and interest and joy? While Maslow’s work is well known and has been widely shared, I find it helpful to revisit his model of growth viewed through a progressive fulfilling of a hierarchy of needs, as we consider contraction and expansion:

  1. Physiological—These are biological requirements for human survival, such as air, food, drink, shelter, clothing, warmth, sleep.
  2. Safety—Emotional security, financial security (for example, employment, social welfare), freedom from fear, social stability, health and well-being. The need for safety is the basis of all other needs. Safety means stability, a sense of having trust in our environment. This secure foundation allows us to take risks and go out and explore the world.
  3. Love and belonging—Examples of belonging needs include friendship, intimacy, trust, acceptance, receiving and giving affection, and love. Feeling connection to others is a fundamental need. The quality of connection hinges on what psychologist Carl Rogers refers to as “unconditional positive regard,” which occurs when a person feels seen, cared for, and safe expressing a whole range of feelings and experiences.
  4. Esteem—Includes self-worth, accomplishment, and respect. This includes first esteem for oneself (dignity, achievement, mastery, independence) and, second, the desire for reputation or respect from others (status and prestige, for example). It comes down to liking yourself!
  5. Self-actualization—Refers to the realization of a person’s potential for self-fulfillment, bringing personal growth and peak experiences, referring to experiences that bring an increase in wonder, joy, serenity, and a heightened sense of beauty while also creating a deeper connection with the world around us. We have these potentialities within us that we can feel deep inside and that could offer so much benefit to ourselves and to the world. Self-actualization is living with openness and curiosity, bringing those potential realities to as full expression as possible.

To journey well, instead of being driven by perpetual discontent, anxieties, and battling with reality because of a sense of deficiency, we are increasingly accepting and loving of ourselves and others. The journey becomes more about What choices will lead me to greater integration and wholeness? than about anything else.

No Journey Is Exclusively Linear

In speaking about the hierarchy of needs later in his life, Maslow emphasized that order in the hierarchy “is not nearly as rigid” as he may have implied in his earlier work, that we needn’t first completely fulfill one level of need to move on to the next.

Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, whom we will meet again in chapter 5, took a new look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in his book Transcend and made this point: “He was very clear that human development is a constant developmental process where we move two steps forward, and then we fall back a step. Life is not like a video game where you reach one level like connection and then some voice from above is like, Congrats, you’ve unlocked esteem and then we never have to worry about that again. He’s very clear life is not like that.”


The Buddhist journey to freedom is described in what is called the Eightfold Path, covering our everyday behavior, our mindfulness, and how we see the world. My colleague Sylvia Boorstein—who has been teaching meditation for many decades and has written several books, including Pay Atten­tion, for Goodness’ Sake: Practicing the Perfections of the Heart—once referred to the Eightfold Path as “the Eightfold Dot,” to help us move away from being stuck in a highly linear sense of a path: “Oh, I did those first few steps a while ago. They are elementary. I’ve moved on, way beyond those now.”

Instead, Sylvia was pointing to cycles, to returning, to renewal and venturing deeper each time we are back once again. I find that a useful reminder whenever I commit to a journey, or a project, or an endeavor, so that I can loosen the grip of inherited models of “success” and “failure.”

Instead of a linear model that evokes moving determinedly in just one direction, I’ve started to imagine the shape of the path to liberation as akin to a double helix, with strands that wrap around each other almost as a kind of twisted ladder. It’s a path that is more integrated and circular, with elements crossing over at multiple points, reciprocally and mutually.

In Southeast Asia, there is a common story about someone who goes into the forest to try to capture a bird. As the parable unfolds, the attempted capture is unsuccessful, but it’s not fruitless. It turns out that it’s fine if the person doesn’t actually capture the bird. The lesson is that because of all the wandering through the forest, the seeker of the bird has learned the ways of the forest. Just so, if we wander as consciously as we can, whether we “succeed” or “fail,” every moment counts. I’ve wanted to learn the ways of a meaningful life since I was eighteen years old. It hasn’t been a straight line, and yet I haven’t wavered about whether it was worth it.

Excerpted from Real Life. Copyright © 2023 By Sharon Salzberg. Excerpted by Permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg

Residential Retreat Teacher

Sharon Salzbergis a meditation pioneer, world-renowned teacher, NY Times bestselling author of thirteen books, and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is among the first to bring meditation to mainstream American culture nearly 50 years ago, inspiring generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers.